For generations, parents have traditionally walked their children into kindergarten classrooms filled with a vast array of learning tools scattered throughout the area.

The COVID-19 pandemic vastly altered the experience for many students making their first forays into learning, and ongoing construction at Wrenshall School complicated things even further. Wrenshall is in the midst of a $9 million health and safety renovation to replace the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and improve the building’s security.

Kindergarten teachers Anna George and Suzy Berger had been thinking about creating outdoor learning spaces for some time, and there was a good place to do it in the school forest, a short walk from the building.

“We knew that we wanted to be outside with the kids as much as possible and that it really will be the best place for them,” Berger said. “As opposed to being in the building, especially with kindergarten ... we get changes to take that break from the masks — though the kids did amazing with them yesterday.”

The first group of students tried out the outdoor classrooms Tuesday, Sept. 8. Instead of a rigidly set up classroom outdoors, they found a more casual environment. Students have logs for seats, tables made from cable spools, an alphabet path made from slices of trees and an old boat converted to a sandbox — much of which was available because of donations or volunteer work from the community. Mosquito Squad in Cloquet even donated a treatment of the area to keep bugs from bothering students and teachers.

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Wrenshall kindergartener Evelyn Reinsch monkeys around in one the outdoor classrooms built in the school's forest. (Photo courtesy of Anna George)
Wrenshall kindergartener Evelyn Reinsch monkeys around in one the outdoor classrooms built in the school's forest. (Photo courtesy of Anna George)

“We wanted to keep it rustic — to feel like you were still out in the woods and keep it natural,” George said.

Being outdoors isn’t just convenient during a pandemic or while waiting for construction to be completed, it’s beneficial to the students, especially those with behavioral or attention issues, Berger said.

“There’s study after study after study that shows being outdoors can help that and it reduces those behaviors, it improves their attention — whether we’re out there or once we come inside,” Berger said.

The outdoor space also gives the students a chance to learn through unstructured play, something George and Berger are strong advocates for in early education.

Wrenshall kindergartner Truman Dugan and a classmate play in a sandbox in one of the outdoor classrooms at the school. (Photo courtesy of Anna George)
Wrenshall kindergartner Truman Dugan and a classmate play in a sandbox in one of the outdoor classrooms at the school. (Photo courtesy of Anna George)

“That doesn't mean that it’s chaos,” George said. “It means we give them the tools and they’re learning, but they don’t know it — they’re having fun. They’re learning alphabetical order and they don’t even know it. They’re learning balance and they don’t even know it.”

Through observing play, teachers can assess where each student is individually and better target each child’s instruction to help ensure they are challenged and work on areas where they struggle. Berger said an alphabet path they created helped her informally determine where the children were in their understanding of reading without sitting down and conducting a formal assessment.

Wrenshall students walk along an "alphabet path" built as part of several outdoor classrooms in the school's forest. (Photo submitted by Suzy Berger)
Wrenshall students walk along an "alphabet path" built as part of several outdoor classrooms in the school's forest. (Photo submitted by Suzy Berger)

The outdoor classrooms also provide a welcome change during a school year that is utterly without precedent. This year will be undeniably difficult, Berger said, but the outdoor classrooms are something to look forward to and will be helpful for the kids’ mental health as well.

“It's our job to make it good for them,” George said. “It's our job to still make it a happy place to come and want to be.”

The teachers are aware the weather will soon begin to limit the time they can spend outdoors, but they hope to get some donations to help purchase rain jackets and boots to extend the time they can spend in their new classrooms this fall.